GenerationTheatre’s ‘Twelfth Night’ adaptation falls short of Shakespeare’s genius

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During the second act of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” curmudgeonly steward Malvolio reads aloud from a letter. He intones, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” — an oft-repeated Shakespeare adage that Malvolio takes to heart, concluding (per the letter’s instructions) that he must don ridiculous bright yellow garters and act erratically in a vain effort to win over his mistress Olivia and achieve this elusive greatness.

In adapting one of Shakespeare’s revered works, many productions may find themselves wearing yellow garters of their own, becoming too mired in unnecessary setting switch-ups and stylistic embellishments that ultimately do nothing to touch on the original text’s majesty. GenerationTheatre’s “Twelfth Night” doppelganger, “Olivia’s Kitchen,” is no exception. Awkwardly staged and riddled with dispirited performances, “Olivia’s Kitchen” falls short of being born with, achieving or receiving via thrust any kind of greatness.

“Olivia’s Kitchen” houses the contents of the original “Twelfth Night.” The action of the comedy takes place in a fictionalized Illyria, and, in the case of this production, largely in the kitchen of Countess Olivia (Deborah Murphy). After her father’s and brother’s deaths, Olivia refuses to accept any proposals of marriage. This frustrates the nearby Duke Orsino (Abhishek Das), who fruitlessly courts Olivia.

Into this conundrum comes the shipwrecked Viola (Joyce Domanico-Huh), who, disguised as a boy, falls in love with Duke Orsino while subsequently earning the adoration of Olivia. And, just to make things more convoluted, Viola’s twin Sebastian (Natalie Watters) eventually shows up, too — only for things to be, of course, all tied up by Act V.

The tangled web described above usually makes for one of Shakespeare’s liveliest comedies, but GenerationTheatre’s iteration felt decidedly dour and slow as molasses. This is largely due to a needless shuffling of Shakespeare’s original narrative plot. Whereas in the original text the romantic chaos is the focal point and the conspiracy to hoodwink Malvolio (David Valayre) is a light-hearted B plot, this adaptation reordered scenes and occasionally removed dialogue in order to frame Malvolio and his plot as central to the narrative.

Perhaps this choice could have payed off, had Malvolio and the conspirators portrayed a playfulness suitable to anchor the performance. As it was, Malvolio’s tormentors seemed decidedly unprepared to be onstage; Ken Watters as Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch especially bumbled through his dialogue at a snail’s pace. Scenes that usually serve as punchy palate cleansers instead felt eons long.

Moreover, Malvolio’s plight presented a thematic roadblock of sorts for the production. His doomed flirtations with Olivia were played as decidedly comedic, but later, Valayre’s Malvolio delivered the last line of the play with a jarringly somber demeanor more suited to the brooding soliloquizing of “Hamlet” than this jaunty comedy. The production couldn’t decide if Malvolio was an object of sympathy or a punchline, and, as the play seemed reworked to center on his exploits, this misstep was keenly felt.

A similarly disappointing decision was “Olivia’s Kitchen” poorly conceived set design. Centered on the titular gimmick, the static set of the kitchen took up the entirety of the stage, but, of course, the text of “Twelfth Night” calls for much of the play’s action to occur outside of this setting. Rather than accommodate the play’s content with a mutable or minimalistic set, the production team behind “Olivia’s Kitchen” instead chose to address this dilemma by staging a makeshift theater-in-the-round production, meaning any scene that couldn’t believably take place in the kitchen was instead punted offstage. Characters walked in the poorly lit aisles, Viola’s shipwreck took the form of a painfully lengthy projected black-and-white film, and poor Duke delivered almost all of his dialogue on a platform directly behind the audience.

And that is a real shame, because the production showcased some genuine talent in Domanico-Huh’s Viola, Murphy’s Olivia, Das’ Duke and in the architectural ingenuity in having different levels and transparent “doors” on the set to denote the eavesdropping of various characters.

In other words, there were glimmers of that coveted greatness within “Olivia’s Kitchen.” But in clumsily reworking Shakespeare’s original text into something far more misguided, those glimmers were drowned in a shipwreck of poor creative judgment.

Hopefully, next time, GenerationTheatre will forgo those yellow garters and prioritize Shakespeare’s script over self-indulgence.

Grace Orriss covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].